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Carmen Boullosa: El complot de los románticos [The Romantics’ Plot]

There are some authors who produce, more or less, the same book throughout their career, varying only the characters (and then not always) and/or the location, but with similar plot, structure and style. No-one could ever accuse Boullosa of recycling the same plot, as hers are wildly varied and wildly imaginative. This book tells the story of a group called El Parnaso (The Parnassus) which consists entirely of dead writers (from all over the world) who meet in New York to award a prize to the best unpublished work. However, they have recently chosen a new president, a very much living Mexican woman writer, who is also the narrator of the novel, whose biographical details are remarkably similar to Carmen Boullosa’s except in one detail. The (unnamed) narrator is relatively unknown as a writer – she has been barely able to find a mention of herself on Google – and she is using her presidency to promote herself, though the job has one drawback, in that she is not allowed to publish her own work during her presidency.

As well as finding the best unpublished work, there is one other issue facing the organisation. The narrator, as a Mexican and hispanophone, feels that it is time that the organisation moved from New York to somewhere else, ideally to a Spanish-speaking city and, from her point of view, what could be better than Mexico City? However, New York is not eager to give up the honour. There have been other attempts but they were thwarted by the New Yorkers, e.g. when they produced for the prize Melville‘s Isle of the Cross, a work which was never published and is now lost. The narrator makes the point that with the importance of Spanish, the location should be in a Spanish-speaking country but the response is that 30% of the inhabitants of New York are Hispanic and that there are many Hispanic authors in New York (the list given includes, of course, Boullosa herself). They produce a Caribbean author for the prize, a man who has just died and who was primarily a painter and sculptor but also a writer and who is called Perez. However, that is rejected as he turns out to be of Jamaican origin, as his name is Perez, and not Pérez, the normal Spanish spelling, shows. Finally, it is accepted that Mexico City should be considered and it is decided to send what they call scouts (Boullosa uses both the English and Spanish terms) to investigate. A foundation aimed at promoting cultural ties between the USA and Mexico funds the journey of the two delegates – the narrator and a US woman poet.

The two women, accompanied by the narrator’s predecessor as president (she has agreed not to reveal his name) are joined by a dead writer, who turns out to be Dante. Boullosa has a wonderful time playing with Dante’s perception of the modern age. The group descends into their own hell, Atlantic Avenue subway station, which is surprisingly deserted, except for being guarded by (dead) soldier-writers. They are taken in hand by rats who not only carry them on the journey but also explain to Dante everything that has happened since the early fourteenth century. They arrive at Purgatory, a standard US shopping mall, where Dante is fitted out in modern US wear, including a T-shirt that reads Don’t Fuck With Me (the two meanings of the term are explained to him and he is satisfied with both) and a baseball cap that reads I Love Britney. The narrator tells him who Britney is (a nearby store conveniently has a video of hers showing). Meanwhile, the US poet (whom the narrator generally refers to as la gringa, or a variation of that term, i.e. a somewhat deprecatory term for a US national) is spending most of her time on her Blackberry.

Their journey involves travelling down to the south of California and hence to Tijuana and then onward to Mexico City. They have some adventures on the way – they find a film set for Zorro III, starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, for example, which fascinates Dante. But we also get to see examples of US-Mexico issues and the problems that Mexico faces, with violence (particularly violence towards women), wetbacks, drugs and political corruption. In short, it seems that, despite its charms, Mexico City may not be the ideal location. They return to New York, where Madrid now becomes the favourite. The narrator is not, surprisingly, too happy with this choice. She would have preferred Berlin, which she knows better than Madrid, which she has only visited as a tourist. But it is a Spanish-speaking city, so she accepts it and the novel ends with the conference. If you were wondering about the title of the book, as I was, it is the Romantics that push forward (successfully) their claims for the prize for best unpublished work, a work by a relatively unknown (certainly to me) Latin American woman writer from that period. The writer, Dolores Veintimilla, even wrote a poem called To Carmen!

As with all of Boullosa’s novels, this novel is great fun, unashamedly post-modernist, richly inventive but also with a serious undertone. Her use of language will clearly give a major headache to any translator (as far as I can determine, it has yet to be translated into any other language). Boullosa uses a contemporary, rapid-fire Spanish, replete with English words, Hispanicised English words (e.g. imeil for email), lots of Mexican slang and words she invents herself. But she is very much concerned with US-Mexico relations and the perception of the Anglo-Saxon world and the gringos (i.e. USA) of Mexico and the Spanish-speaking world. Using the dead writers idea, she is able to point out how many great Hispanic writers are virtually unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world. She makes a special point of showing the travails of Elena Garro getting herself published in English, despite the fact that she was married to a Nobel Prize winner. The New York literary establishment rejected her and her best known novel was finally published by University of Texas Press. The Madrid meeting is full of Hispanic writers – she mocks Neruda and Mistral, allows Jorge Ibargüengoitia to bring his girlfriend, while Carmen Boullosa almost gets thrown out. But there are a variety of writers from other parts of the world and not just the well-known ones – Edna St Vincent Millay and Waldo Frank both make an appearance. In short, she shows an incredible amount of literary erudition, which is both instructive but also adds to the enjoyment, as these writers mingle and argue. I would like to hope that this novel is translated into English but, as I said, it will be difficult to convey Boullosa’s bold and inventive language in any other language.

Publishing history

First published by Ediciones Siruela in 2009
No English translation